/ 11 August 2008

Fast and efficient: Chips of the future revealed

Intel on Monday revealed details of a new generation of chips designed for video-game lovers, multitaskers and people seeking power-sipping computers adapted to increasingly mobile lifestyles.

The world’s largest chip maker provided a glimpse of “multicore” computer processing technology codenamed “Larrabee” that it plans to showcase next week at an industry conference in Los Angeles.

Intel and rival Advanced Micro Devices already sell chips with two or four “cores”, basically the brains in processors.

Intel is to release in 2009 or 2010 a first wave of Larrabee chips with 16 to 48 cores and tailored for handling computer game graphics.

Multicore chips cut energy use and heat while speeding performance by dividing tasks between cores. Portions of programs run simultaneously in a style referred to as “parallel computing”.

Traditional single-core processors handle tasks in a linear fashion, racing from start to finish in sequence.

Along with allowing faster computer game play with film-quality graphics, multicore chips are considered a boon to computer users increasingly prone to tending to multiple tasks at once.

For example, a computer user might watch online video, tend to email and SMS while anti-virus software runs in the background.

Designing software and support architecture that best enables “many-core” chips to divide tasks among the brains in ways that maximise computing efficiency has proved daunting.

Software creators weren’t motivated to exert the “lunar-landing size effort” to shift to writing for many-core chips because there wasn’t any hardware in the market to run it on, according to Intel spokesperson Nick Knupffer.

“There was a chicken-and-egg situation,” Knupffer said. “The hardware guys couldn’t make a chip until there was software out there. We had a stalemate.”

The first Larrabee product will be a graphics card because high-quality games are beginning to capitalise on “parallelizing” software.

“Think of it as a key to unlock the next era of computing; the many-core era,” Knupffer said. “It’s a bit like a supercomputer on a chip. Really, the sky is the limit in terms of what software makers can do with it.”

As developers grow comfortable crafting programs for many-core chips, Larrabee processor technology built on today’s common computer designs will be spread to other hardware roles and devices, according to Intel.

Microsoft and Intel have software research alliances with major universities and Intel is also working with the United States military’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“It is important for industry to work in tandem with academia to unleash the immense power of parallel computing,” Microsoft Research vice-president Tony Hey said when the alliance was announced.

Intel researchers have already made an 80-core processor. “We’re quickly moving the computing industry to a many-core world,” Intel Research director Andrew Chien said at the alliance launch.

Chien predicts that multicore chips will let computers “bridge the physical world with the virtual”.

Predicted research breakthroughs include software enabling cellphones to recognise faces of approaching acquaintances and whisper their names to users. Another foreseeable application is described as voice recognition software so accurate it could be used to record witness testimony in courtroom proceedings.

Intel expects Larrabee “to kick-start an industry-wide effort to create and optimise software for the dozens, hundreds and thousands of cores expected to power future computers”.

Larrabee’s initial foray into the multibillion-dollar computer graphics market will put it in an arena dominated by Nvidia and AMD, which both reportedly plan to market graphics cards with hundreds of cores. — AFP